Religion is a complex force with many benefits for people and societies. It brings us together, it fosters strong families, promotes morality and civic involvement, it contributes to a person’s self-control and self-esteem, helps to make the world a better place, alleviates suffering, provides hope, reduces anxiety, engenders compassion and empathy, inspires ideation and creativity, and gives rise to a variety of religious traditions. It is good for health and learning, promotes economic well-being and social stability, and it reduces out-of-wedlock births, crime and delinquency, drug and alcohol abuse, and psychological problems and illnesses. It is also associated with greater happiness, stronger marriages and a higher level of satisfaction in one’s family life.

But it is not without its problems. Religiously inclined people are often polarized, as evidenced by the political climate in this country. Religion can also lead to a sense of isolation and marginalization. And, the practice of religion can sometimes be dangerous.

There are those who believe that the concept of religion is a western construct created by European colonialism, and that we should reject it. Others have gone further, and say that it is a falsehood to assert that there is such a thing as religion. They argue that the concept of religion is a purely modern category, that narrowing the definition to belief in spiritual beings excludes other religions, and that the fact that there are different interpretations of this phenomenon reveals its artificiality.

A third approach to the problem of religion focuses on the content and character of the religious experience. These theorists see a religion as “a constellation, an assemblage or network of overlapping religious dimensions.” For example, Alston (1967: 145-6) defines religion as “the system of ideas and practices in which an individual participates that is based on the conviction that there are supernatural beings who are the source of his or her existence and the ultimate cause of the universe and all that is in it.”

The idea of a God and an afterlife stimulate the imagination and the emotions. The awareness of being dependent on God or the divine evokes humility. The knowledge that a loving protector is available and can be accessed engenders trust. A feeling of helplessness prompted by sickness, loss or defeat leads to the search for Divine assistance. The conscious acquisition of friendship with a protector gratifies the soul.

We need to find ways to explore the role of religion in our lives without stifling its freedom. We should support legislatively appropriate means to encourage the study of religion and its impact on society, and we should insist that judges who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate recognize the important role that religion plays in our nation’s life. We should ask prospective judges to state their opinions on this matter, and we should make clear that the founding fathers intended to protect freedom of religion in the public sphere. It is time for a national dialogue on the meaning of religion in our daily lives.